A View from Atlas Park: Swimming in Squares

Why are seawater-based characters so lame?

Sure, Aquaman springs to mind when someone throws this kind of cheapshot, but when you stop to think about it, almost all sea-based heroes aren’t worth their weight in brine.

(Firstly, I’ll point out here I’m talking about established comic book characters, not your fantabulous CoH hero with an ocean origin story. Secondly, I’m not going to do a hatchet job on Aquaman. It’s already been done and was more based on his “Super Friends” persona than current status, which is a little like mocking Batman for the television show, but ignoring the movies and comics.)

Water-orientated characters aren’t as common as they used to be, but there was a time when you couldn’t throw a pebble into a pond without hitting some underwater civilisation. Entire armies would regularly march out of the depths to attack “the surface dwellers”. Superpowered beings (who were usually royalty to boot) would appear out of a lake or bay near a big city, have a look around and inevitably fall in love with a landlubber. Not much of this happens now and, if it does, it’s usually more of a cliche / joke than serious story, or exists to show fan service of mermaids in bikinis.

The biggest problem with these sea-themed stories was that living in the water was “the same, but different”. Apart from having to swim everywhere (which is kinda-sorta like flying, but everyone can do it) there weren’t a lot of noticable changes when compared to living on land. People (and they were invaritably white-skinned humanoids, unless they were evil monsters) from under da sea didn’t differ much from those on the land, except in obvious “oh, aren’t they strange?” kind of ways (eg lungs vs gills, pants vs scales / antiquated armour, etc) but the cultures were often quite similar. Using a water-based origin was just a shortcut for a writer to churn out a character without having to think too hard about it – “they are from underwater and therefore not like us, okay?” is about as far as the pathos went.

Apart from a few old stalwarts (the aforementioned Aquaman and Namor spring to mind) and rare newcomer (Fathom is one, but I’ve never read the series so can’t comment), sea-based heroes are all but an extinct series. And they really aren’t missed. Let’s face it – most of these ocean-based characters were given super-strength, maybe flight and a smattering of ESP – which isn’t particularly exciting in a character since it’s been done so many times before. Plus, in order for the character to use their full powers, they often had to be near water, which meant lots of adventures near inlets, harbours, fjords, islands etc. This limits the applicability of characters to certain types of environments and the kind of adventures they could have (like how does a sea-based hero fare in the other great comic book environment – outer space?).

Civilisations from under the sea are also pretty passe as well. The old chesnut of Atlantis has been used so much that it’s pretty much dead, regardless of how clever the writer is in pulling it into the story. As readers we are willing to accept a certain suspension of disbelief (especially when we read comics) but we generally want things to be consistent. A modern day superhero narrative can’t just have an underwater civilisation rise up out of nowhere and us accept it without good writing. For instance, I can accept what happens in “The Abyss” and why we wouldn’t have encountered those creatures before; I couldn’t accept the appearance of underwater beings who look like me, talk like me but just dress a bit differently without a heck of a good explanation.

Despite covering about 70% of the Earth’s surface, the ocean really isn’t that familiar to most of us. Watching a sea-based superhero yet again wrestle with monster of the deep doesn’t hold our interest, because there really doesn’t appear to be any consequence if the hero loses. For us to care, the villain / monster / disaster must threaten the land (and us by extension). Once that villain hits the land, well, we’ve already got other heroes to deal with it. The hero of the ocean gets squeezed out of the middle unless they’ve got something different to offer.

This is a bit of pity, because sea-based superheroes still have a lot of scope. Take five minutes to look at some of the strange and wacky creatures that live in the sea (especially the deep sea). Although Angler-Fish Man probably wouldn’t be a great hero, there are numerous physiological aspects of sealife that would provide a character with something different. Of course, then you need a reason for them to come to the surface which needs to extend past the “man is polluting the ocean” bit (which of course we are, but it has also been done to death). Or perhaps not – an interesting, if perhaps politically sensitive, twist could be put on eco-terrorism if done from an underwater angle.

Although a near-mainstay of comics, underwater characters / settings really haven’t been well used. They have been too cliche and one-dimensional in application and I doubt that this is going to change when more exciting, hi-tech creations (eg nano-tech or interdimensional travel) exist for writers to use.

Personally, I hope Cryptic stays well away from the temptation of devoting too much attention to building sea-worlds due to the limitations they carry. While having a water-based villain group (who could rise out of Paragon City lakes and attempt to drag citizens back to the watery depths with them) might be a good idea, I can see limited application for underwater zones. CoH heroes couldn’t swim openly underwater since it would against the “feel” of the game, so any underwater zones would have to be enclosed areas. Realistically, only one or two of these domes (with fish swimming around the outside and internal bioluminescent organisms providing the light) could be introduced to CoH before they started to be uninteresting.

In my opinion, of course…

– UnSub [email protected] 4 August 2004

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